Harsh New Drug Bill About to Be Introduced in House 11/21/03

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One of Congress's staunchest drug warriors, Rep. Mark Souder, is at it again. The Indiana Republican best known for authoring the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision is about to introduce legislation that would jam federal prisons even more full of drug offenders. The bill, called with Orwellian flair the "Drug Sentencing Reform Act," is set to be introduced within the next two weeks, and Souder is looking for cosponsors, reported the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), which has two staffers working Capitol Hill full-time and which is organizing to kill the bill.

According to an explanation of the bill provided in a Souder e-mail to his colleagues his legislation would:

  • Expand the purview of the Feeney Amendment, which restricts federal judges' ability to reduce sentences, to include drug offenses.
  • Mandate random drug testing for almost all federal parolees and probationers, not just drug offenders or people suspected of having substance abuse problems.
  • Direct the US Sentencing Commission to no longer allow lower sentences for nonviolent drug offenders who have certain mitigating circumstances (such as being addicted to drugs) or who lack previous criminal records.
  • Create harsh new penalties for growing "high-potency" marijuana.
"This was a little holiday surprise," said Bill Piper, legislative director at DPA's Washington office, "and it's not a very pleasant one. This bill is overwhelmingly bad," he told DRCNet, "it's all sentencing and no reform. This bill continues a trend of tying the hands of judges and preventing them from reducing sentences for drug offenders. Not only will more people go to prison for longer stays, the taxpayers will have to pay for it."

The sentencing provisions are not the only provisions that will leave taxpayers clutching their wallets, Piper said. "The mandatory drug testing provision will also cost," he said. "Right now, judges have discretion on ordering testing, and they usually only impose a drug testing condition on parolees who have drug charges or a substance abuse problem, but this bill would require everyone on supervised release to have drug tests, even if there is no reason to believe they might be using drugs. It costs money to test every single federal parolee or probationer," Piper explained.

And while corrections departments in the states are moving to rein in the practice of returning parolees to prison for "administrative" violations such as failing a drug test (see California newsbrief this issue), federal drug testing will be used to re-imprison thousands of nonviolent drug offenders for years, Piper added. There is an exception for some federal misdemeanors or if prosecutors move to waive drug testing. "When is that going to happen?" Piper asked. "The states are trying to fix this problem, but Souder is moving in the opposite direction."

And then there's Souder's continuing war on marijuana. Long a loud opponent of medical marijuana, Souder has crafted a "high-potency" pot provision seemingly designed to be used against medical marijuana grows in states where the practice is legal. According to the bill's draft, marijuana growing offenders will be sentenced not just on the weight of the drug but according to its potency. Souder's bill creates three classes of high potency pot, between 6 and 13% THC, 13-25% THC, and greater than 25% THC.

Souder and former SSDP
national director Shawn Heller,
moments before Souder loses
his cool in a televised
street encounter
in his district
The changes in sentencing for high-potency growers would be dramatic under the Souder bill. For instance, if someone grew 50 plants in California as part of a medical marijuana program, under current law he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in federal prison. Under the Souder bill, the same grower would face a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence and a maximum 40-year sentence.

"This is really about the cultural war on marijuana," said Piper. "They know they're losing the battle in terms of public support for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. Both Souder and John Walters like to talk about 'super-pot,' not your father's pot, this dangerous high-potency stuff. They also want to go after the pot co-ops, and it's easier to say they're going after dangerous, high-potency marijuana than it is for them to argue that we need increased marijuana penalties across the board."

Medical marijuana users smoke marijuana with high THC concentrations because it works better for them, said Piper. "It is ironic that Souder would discourage people from using stronger marijuana. People using more potent pot smoke less, and that's good for their health. Souder is encouraging people to grow and smoke low-quality pot, which means marijuana smokers will just smoke more."

That provision also provoked the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) to jump in to oppose the bill. "This bill is a direct threat to the health of patients and to the caregivers and loved ones who assist them," said Steve Fox, MPP director of government relations. "Souder should call his bill the Lung Disease Promotion Act of 2003. The only serious health risks associated with marijuana use involve lung problems like bronchitis caused by the tars in smoke, and research has shown that users of higher-THC marijuana inhale less of those contaminants."

While Souder scurries around seeking cosponsors, DPA is gearing up to ensure that he finds few or none. "We're doing a whole bunch of things to blunt this bill," said Piper. "We're encouraging people to call their representatives and tell them not to cosponsor, we've contacted congressional offices with the same message, we've faxed every congressional office a one-page analysis, and we're working to get media around so people are too embarrassed to become cosponsors," he explained.

Visit http://www.drugpolicy.org/docUploads/SouderEmail.pdf to view a copy of the Souder e-mail.

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Issue #312, 11/21/03 Editorial: One Step Too Far | Harsh New Drug Bill About to Be Introduced in House | Jamaica: Ganja Decrim is Moving Again | Incident at Goose Creek: Fallout Continues in Aftermath of High School Drug Raid | DRCNet Interview: Youth Sociologist Mike Males | Call Campaign Targets Congressmen Voting Against Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Methamphetamine Labs Are Not Weapons of Mass Destruction, North Carolina Judge Rules | Newsbrief: California Judge to Run for Senate on Legalization Platform, Libertarian Ticket | Newsbrief: Mexico City's Top Prosecutor Goes Off the Reservation -- Talks Legalization While Fox Government Vows Loyalty to Drug War | Newsbrief: California to Quit Sending Parolees Back to Prison Over Drug Tests | Newsbrief: Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Medical Marijuana Initiative -- Again | Newsbrief: Filipino Senator Calls for Firing Squads in Continuing Escalation of Drug War Rhetoric | Newsbrief: Reform Judaism National Body Endorses Medical Marijuana | Media Scan: Jack Cole of LEAP on Cultural Baggage Radio Show Next Week | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | The Reformer's Calendar

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